Friday Reads: Mrs. Adams in Winter
This month the Narrative Nonfiction Book Club read Mrs. Adams in Winter: a journey in the last days of Napoleon by British historian Michael O’Brien. The publisher describes it thus:
“Early in 1815, Louisa Catherine Adams and her young son left St. Petersburg in a Russian carriage and set out to meet her husband, John Quincy Adams, in Paris. She traveled through the snows of eastern Europe, across the battlefields of Germany, and into a France then experiencing Napoleon’s return from Elba. Along the way, she learned what Napoleon’s wars had done to Europe, what her old friends in the royal court in Berlin had experienced during the French occupation, how it felt to have her life threatened by reckless soldiers, and how to manage fear. Historian Michael O’Brien reconstructs for the first time that extraordinary passage. This evocative history of the experience of travel in the days of carriages and kings offers a moving portrait of a lady, her difficult marriage, and her conflicted sense of what it meant to be a woman caught between worlds.”
We had a vibrant discussion about the personal significance of this journey for Mrs. Adams, the nature of her marriage to John Quincy Adams and the style of historical writing that the author employed. The discussion served to help readers understand the book better than they did on their own as we highlighted significant passages and delved deep into questions. We were very interested to note that unlike our usual fare, this book was not written like a novel, putting the reader in the carriage right next to Mrs. Adams and her son. Rather, it was written from a more distant voice of a careful historian who was reporting and analyzing facts, down to the smallest possible detail. Some of us yearned for a more narrative telling with character development and intimacy, but others thoroughly y enjoyed the plethora of detail about social conventions, descriptions of towns and practical considerations of taking such an arduous trip.
This book was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize and was very highly regarded by many professional reviewers. Try it with your book club and see what you think.